Protesters demand the release of Indian climate activist Disha Ravi

India cracks down on climate activists supporting farmer protests

Amid massive, ongoing farmer protests, the Indian government has cracked down on climate activists, including Disha Ravi, who founded Fridays for Future India.

Living on Earth

People hold placards demanding the release of Indian climate activist Disha Ravi, during a protest in Bengaluru, India, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021. 

Aijaz Rahi/AP

In India, millions of farmers and their allies are protesting new laws they say will benefit large agribusiness at the expense of small family farmers. The protesters have shut down major roads across the country and set up makeshift camps in New Delhi, complete with generators, laundry service and libraries, paralyzing the capital city.

In response, the government is cracking down on climate activists who have joined the farmer-led protests, which have been escalating since November.

Last month, on Feb. 13, authorities jailed 22-year-old Disha Ravi, who started an Indian chapter of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future network, which has inspired millions of schoolchildren around the world to strike in support of action on climate change. Arrest warrants are also out for two of Ravi’s associates.

Ravi has been organizing protests in India for about three years. Recently, she circulated a “toolkit" on social media, in the form of a Google Doc, designed to help the protesting farmers. The toolkit was retweeted by Greta Thunberg, which was cited by the government as evidence of sedition and led to Ravi’s arrest. On Feb. 23, an Indian court granted Ravi bail on the condition she remain in Delhi.

This was not Ravi’s first encounter with the Modi government, which is highly sensitive to criticism. In July, police took down a Fridays For Future website that protested the planned dilution of environmental laws.

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Aditya Sharma, a freelance reporter based in India, who wrote about Ravi’s arrest for the German media service, Deutsche Welle, says the charges against the Indian environmental activists and climate campaigners don’t really add up.

“The authorities say that these activists were working with international conspirators to sort of discredit India, and that the toolkit is waging social and cultural war against the government of India, when essentially what the toolkit does is it creates and spread awareness about the ongoing farmers' protests."

Aditya Sharma, freelance journalist

“The authorities say that these activists were working with international conspirators to sort of discredit India and that the toolkit is waging social and cultural war against the government of India, when essentially what the toolkit does is it creates and spread awareness about the ongoing farmers' protests,” Sharma explains.

Sedition, he adds, is a colonial-era law that free speech activists and other critics say has “no place in modern India.”

“As far as criminal conspiracy is concerned, a lot of legal experts would argue that the charges don't really hold water,” Sharma says. “They're just an overreaction to something that's part of campaigning and activism. This is just that the government feels threatened.”

As for the second part of the charge, which claims the activists have links to the Khalistan Sikh separatist movement, Sharma says this has been “sort of the go-to argument for the government to discredit the farmers because the protests have been so strong.”

India has never had a good track record for dealing with internal criticism, Sharma notes, “but it certainly can be argued that the intensity has really gone up in the past at least five years [under Modi].”

As to why climate activists have involved themselves in the farmers’ protests and have, in turn, been targeted by the government, Sharma thinks Greta Thunberg put it well: “Democracy and science are interlinked, and if you don't respect democracy, you probably won't respect science,” he says, paraphrasing Thunberg.

The devastating effects of climate change on farming are the backdrop for the current protests in India and Sharma believes Modi has not made enough progress toward addressing the problem.

“Prime Minister Modi has spoken about the need for combating climate change and India is, of course, a party to the Paris climate accord, but there is very little to show for it,” he says. “There's always this argument that India…is a growing economy, we're an emerging economy, and we need to rely on fossil fuel, so the shift to green energy isn't going to happen overnight. The goals [in India] under the Paris climate accord are quite lax compared to…more developed economies.”

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India has also been cracking down on journalists, including independent journalists like Sharma. So far, he says, he has not had any problems with the police or the government, but he knows this could change.

“Of course, there's this constant fear that something I write tomorrow or something I report tomorrow could land me in jail,” he says. “It's sort of something that you have to constantly work with. But it's the job of a journalist to report and write the facts and cover the biggest events. And this is actually an event that directly affects the vast, vast majority of the country.”

This article is based on an interview by Bobby Bascomb that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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